Rare Birds

Making classical music community business: Embraced by H-Town's Taiwanese society, Trio Oriens tackles End of Time

Making classical music community business: Embraced by H-Town's Taiwanese society, Trio Oriens tackles End of Time

The Trio Oriens came to my attention when my friend composer Hsin-Jung Tsai told me that the trio, pianist I-Ling Chen, violinist Johnny Chang, and cellist Olive Chen, would be performing Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time" with clarinetist Richard Nunemaker Tuesday night at St. Thomas University.

Excited that I would finally get to experience this seminal work of the avant-garde live, I logged onto the ubiquitous YouTube to see and hear the trio in action. Their spirited performance of Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music grabbed me immediately; the individual musicianship and ensemble sound of the trio is powerful and appealing.

And, being a composer myself, I was pleased to find that along with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, less familiar and contemporary music is included in their repertoire.

The trio came together about two years ago at a concert featuring a variety of chamber music musicians, including I-Ling Chen. I-Ling had dreamt of being part of a long-term chamber group and as it turned out, Chang and Olive Chen, who also performed on the concert and have known each other for almost 20 years, were looking for a pianist to play with.

 In addition to the technical challenges it presents to musicians, Messiaen's Quartet may have the most unusual and inspiring back story in the annals of modern music. 

They all wanted, as Olive Chen explains, “to play with friends and play the music we like to play, instead the music people ask us to play.” The chemistry was instant between these three Taiwanese born virtuosos, and the Trio Oriens was born.

In addition to classical works as well as traditional Chinese and Taiwanese music, the trio welcome the challenge of performing 20th and 21st century compositions. And Messiaen’s Quartet, a 50-minute work scored for the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano, certainly provides challenges one doesn’t encounter in, for instance, the music of Johannes Brahms.  

“It’s very different,” confirms I-Ling Chen when I bring up that comparison.

“It is one of the most challenging pieces of chamber music,” Johnny Chang says, “Not individually, but more as an ensemble.” Chang was speaking specifically of the Quartet’s notorious sixth movement Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes and agreed with my description of that particular movement as “insane.”

In addition to the technical challenges it presents to musicians, Messiaen's Quartet may have the most unusual and inspiring back story in the annals of modern music.

A Triumph Over Time

Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”) had its premiere at the Nazi prisoner of war camp Stalag VIIIA in 1941, with the composer playing the piano. Messiaen had been serving as a medical orderly before being captured and eventually sent to the camp. Amazingly, he was allowed by the camp’s authorities to continue composing and was even provided pencils, paper and a place to write either in the barracks or possibly the latrines.

Composed by a deeply religious man in the most extreme of circumstances, Quartet for the End of Time speaks to the experience of transcendence in the midst of tragedy, of death and rebirth, of Messiaen’s unwavering belief in a “greater good when the immediate world seemed to be teetering on the edge of an apocalypse.”

The audience for the camp premiere of Quartet consisted of Messiaen’s fellow prisoners as well as a row of German officers. The details of that performance have become the stuff of legend, including the wooden clogs worn by each of the players (true, the wood was uncomfortable, but it kept their feet warm) and the cello with just three strings (false, “If Messiaen had played the cello, he would have known that you couldn’t play that piece on three strings!” says cellist Etienne Pasquier who, along with violinist Jean Le Boulaire, and clarinetist Henri Akoka premiered the Quartet).

While playing Quartet’s “infinitely slow, ecstatic” fifth movement, “Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus,” Olive Chen says she tries to step into the shoes of the musicians who premiered the piece, to feel “how painful, how totally hopeless . . .” things must have appeared. And yet, in high, held notes of her cello in that movement, there is, she acknowledges, “a little light at the very end of a tunnel.”

“You just hold the breath,” she says. “Try to hold the breath to see if you have a better life tomorrow, to see a little bit of light . . .”

Messiaen’s music pushes each performer to the limits of their instruments. But in passages where the music and its markings seem to make little sense, or at least tax what’s physically possible to play on the instrument, I-Ling Chen feels sticking to the score is paramount.

“I just feel you need to do everything on (the page),” she says, and "resist" the urge to create an accelerando or crescendo when such markings are not in the score.

“It can’t be done,” Akoka would tell Messiaen while rehearsing the Quartet’s bird song inspired third movement “Abîme de oiseaux” for solo clarinet. “It’s impossible!”

“But you’re doing it.” Messiaen assured him. “You’re getting there!” 

From Taiwan to Texas

Olive Chen describes the Trio Oriens as being very much like a “family business,” with friends and partners helping out with everything from photographing the trio to handling post-concert hospitality. They are certainly a part of the larger family that is Houston’s Taiwanese community, enjoying support and performance opportunities thanks to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

Their ambitions are the same as any other up and coming classical ensemble — management and schedules permitting, a tour outside of Texas — but they enjoy and are grateful for the support they've received in Houston, a truly international city.

 Olive Chen describes the Trio Oriens as being very much like a “family business,” with friends and partners helping out with everything from photographing the trio to handling post-concert hospitality. 

"So far the communication has been good,” says I-Ling when I ask about rehearsing as a trio. “We never really fight. Personality wise, we are gentle people. It’s easier to compromise.”

The mutual respect and friendship among the three members of the trio is clearly evident in their musical performances.

With music, the profundity of the playing and listening experience has nothing to do with where it's performed, be it a prisoner of war camp or a concert hall in Houston. All that matters is whether or not the musicians onstage as well as those in the listening audience are willing to be transformed.

As Rebecca Richen recounts in her book For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet, the “ideologically agnostic” cellist Pasquier wrote on the back of a program after the camp premiere, “Outside, night, snow misery… Here a miracle… The quartet “for the end of time” transports us to a wonderful Paradise, lifts us from this abominable earth.”

Richard Nunemaker and the Trio Oriens perform 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cullen Hall on the University of St. Thomas. Admission is free.

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Page one from the Sixth Movement
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